Some user-friendly concordance ideas

Although corpora are now widely used in putting together ELT Dictionaries, and increasingly used in writing ELT materials, it is still rare, I think, for corpora, and especially for concordances to be used much in the ELT classroom.

Firstly, I think many teachers are not quite sure what they are. To clarify, a corpus (plural corpora) is a collection of texts (for written corpora) or recordings of speech (for spoken corpora). A vast amount of language is gathered, and when sorted by a computer, this can provide a lot of data about how language is actually used, which words naturally collocate and so on.

A concordance gives you all or some of the examples of how a particular word or phrase has been used in that corpora. For example:

Top of Form

001. and win a Mediterranean holiday!”  WASTE of time!” Dad had said. “No one ever wins those things
002.  as they sit around a WASTE lot passing muscatel which warms each in his sour shea
003.  And so it was a WASTE crying over spilled milk.” “I think this is where we c
004. “Because the merchant thought it was a WASTE of light to have both eyes open; why not save the ligh
005.  is not capable of doing this, then it is a WASTE of money to install it, no matter what attractive indu
006. “As it was such a WASTE of time, you presumably won’t want to come,”
007.  because it would be a WASTE of public money to put him on probation. No wonder he
008.  misunderstood is always a WASTE of time. Until our Moscow experience, I had not consid
009.  which inevitably leads to a WASTE of nursing resources. The Auditor General’s criticism
010.  “That’s silly!” “That’s a WASTE, sure it is, dad?” “Both. But the people had done it t

[I used the concordancer at conc.lextutor.ca]

While there are lots of ways in which we can easily use corpora, mostly through webtools, you only have to look at the sample concordance above to see why concordances aren’t used much in class. They just look so dense, unattractive and overwhelming. The sample extracts are also often rather baffling, and can be very offputting.

But you should also note that even in the first 10 examples I selected (there were 72), there is a lot of useful information. We can see that we often use ‘waste’ with ‘time ‘and ‘money’; that we most often say ‘a’ waste of.., that we can use it as an adjective  in ‘a waste lot’.

Most people agree that students learn by being exposed to language, including extensive reading. Using a concordance is a way of giving that exposure in a more concentrated form, so that students can see how words are woven together.

I should say at this point that I am by no means an expert in concordancing; indeed I am probably as confused  (or more confused) as the next person by the whole techy side of it. It is also, it seems to me, disproportionately difficult to find free corpora online. But I do think it’s a shame not to try and use this undoubtedly good resource, and just wanted to share a few ideas.

The sites I have used are the Corpus of  Contemporary American English , and http://www.lextutor.ca/concordancers/. Both these sites can do far more things than I am able to explain, so if anyone wants to take up the baton and guide us through the complexities, we’d all, I’m sure, be grateful.

In the meantime, here are a few fairly simple ideas I have used in the classroom. They all use the basic KWIC (keyword in context) concordance, though there are lots of other ways of sorting the information.

Pre-teaching vocabulary

Before reading a text in class, you can select a small number of words to pre-teach (see here for a post on pre-teaching vocabulary) and, rather than asking students to use dictionaries, give a concordance of each word to a different group, (or ask them to feed the word into an online concordancer). They should look at the examples and try to work out a definition- which they can then check in a dictionary. If students are likely to be put off my the more obscure examples, you can just pre-select some examples that are relatively straightforward.

Groups can then feedback to each other, explaining the words.

You may ask why not simply check in a dictionary in the first place- but there is evidence to suggest that students will gain a greater understanding of how to use a word, and be more likely to remember it, if they have seen it in several contexts.

Raising awareness of collocations

A very simple activity is to produce a concordance with a word (such as waste), which has strong collocates, and then remove the keyword, asking students to guess what the missing word is.

For example, can you do this one?* (I used the Corpus of Contemporary American English):

Many of them were ______ workers, you know support staff, people who cleaned, cooked.

Employment? – All ______ jobs, answered Claire. ‘dishwasher, building janitor…’

..he does _______ tasks vaguely tied to insurance.

If they do find a job, it’s ________ labour.

Clarifying easily confused words/eliciting grammar rules.

Sometimes words have quite similar meanings, but are used slightly differently. For example, ‘say’ and ‘tell’. Looking at two concordances, one for each word, can really help to clarify how these words are used differently. You can then ask students to try to explain the differences they have noticed.

This can also work well for some grammar rules, such as the use of some and any, or too and enough.

Error correction

Once students are confident about using online concordancers, you can underline any errors in their written work; the kind where we just have to say ‘We just don’t say it like that in English.’, and ask them to look up the keyword and see how it would be phrased in English, using the examples.

Useful and/or informative sites about using corpora and concordances

http://leoxicon.blogspot.co.uk/p/essential-lexical-tools.html – a useful list of corpus based web tools (and the rest of the site is worth checking out to if you’re interested in vocabulary learning and teaching)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qf46lOnMCfs&feature=related An hour long talk by Randi Reppen on Using Corpora in the Language Classroom. I have the book (also recommended), so haven’t watched the whole thing, but I suspect it is very much worth watching.

http://eltrantsreviewsreflections.wordpress.com/using-online-corpus-tools-to-check-intuitions/ A blog post on using online corpus tools (and again, check out the rest of the blog too)

  * menial

8 Comments

Filed under Vocabulary

8 responses to “Some user-friendly concordance ideas

  1. Hi Rachael
    Thank you so much for including my blog in your list – much appreciated.
    Regarding the missing word above, my immediate first guess was “manual” but then I realised it doesn’t quite fit.
    LEO

  2. Yes, I get overwhelmed by corpora, too, but have you heard of English Profile? The link can be found in my Useful Resources page. Look under Ideas & Materials for Teachers. Their vocabulary profile is very interesting. It’s much more user-friendly and looks like a dictionary. Based on the Cambridge English Profile Corpus, words are classified according to CEFR usage, which makes it very useful if you need to know, for example, which words/expressions are appropriate for the level you’re teaching.

    For instance, your example of “waste” shows up these:

    Core results:

    waste noun BAD USE B1
    waste noun UNWANTED MATTER B2
    waste adjective B1
    waste verb USE TOO MUCH B1
    be wasted on sb C2

    If you want the detailed view, you’ll get:

    BAD USE

    B1 [U or no plural] an unnecessary or wrong use of money, substances, time, energy, abilities, etc.

    Dictionary examples:

    That meeting achieved absolutely nothingit was a complete waste of time.

    Shes been unemployed for two years and its such a waste of her talents.

    This food mixers been a total waste of moneywe never use it.

    Learner example:
    I dont [watch] m[uch] television because I think its a waste of time.
    Preliminary English Test; B1; Portuguese

    What do you reckon?

  3. Thanks for the links and ideas. I’ve been using http://www.just-the-word.com with my students and they find it very manageable (as do I!)

  4. Pingback: How to explain a word using corpora « EFL Notes

  5. Pingback: Some user-friendly concordance ideas | Englada

  6. Pingback: #ELTchat » Using corpora in the classroom – an #ELTchat summary (6/3/13)

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